by James Morris
St. Martin’s, 418 pp., $8.95
A group of students on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley are in animated discussion. Are they debating subtle differences between Maoism and Castroism? Between Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism? Listen carefully. They are talking about the “rapture.” Will the saved be caught up in the air with Jesus at the time of his Second Coming, or will the rapture take place before the Second Coming?
This unexpected revival of Protestant fundamentalism among the young (what sociologist predicted it?) is one of the craziest aspects of the current American scene. “Demythologizing”—purging Christianity of the historicity of its great myths—was supposed to keep the young people in the liberal churches. It had a reverse effect. Mythology was what they wanted, not do-good sermonizing that put their heads to sleep. They wanted to be told about heaven and hell, God and Satan, sin and redemption.
The liberal churches are now half-filled on Sunday mornings, mostly with sad-faced elders who are there largely from habit. They sing tuneless hymns with vacuous phrases. They recite dreary creeds they no longer believe. They drink a communion wine that has lost even its symbolic savor. On the other side of town, Pentecostal churches are jammed with bright-eyed youngsters who are belting out the old melodious songs about the Cross, shouting “Thank you, Jesus!” and having a marvelous time. (Pentecostalism is the belief that the “gifts” of Pentecost, especially faith-healing and glossolalia, were not restricted to the early Church but are still in effect as signs of the power of the Holy Spirit. Modern Pentecostalism was confined to Protestant fundamentalist sects until a few years ago when it suddenly became fashionable among conservative Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.)
Riding the crest of this new wave, in part fomenting it, are the great evangelists. Who are they? What are they like? James Morris, who grew up in Tulsa, has written a frightening, funny account of nine of the biggies. “One-man denominations,” he calls them. Their simple-minded books are selling by the millions. Their colorful magazines have larger circulations than Playboy. More psychosomatic ills are being banished in one day by Bible-thumping faith healers than by all the psychiatrists in a year, and the cures are probably just as lasting.
Consider Tulsa, once the proud “oil capital of the world.” Today it is the “fundamentalist capital of the world.” Oral Roberts and Billy James Hargis, two of the country’s most successful one-man denominations, make their homes there. Roberts, the more flamboyant of the two, is now second only to Billy Graham in fame, fortune, and adulation. Morris’s chapter on him, painstakingly documented, tells a remarkable story.
The story begins in 1918 on a farm near Ada, Oklahoma. That was the year both Roberts and Graham were born. Although Oral’s parents were devout members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, Oral did not take his religion seriously until one day when he was playing high school basketball and collapsed on the floor with blood running …